On Saturday 25th September 2021, history was made as Sara Cox became the first woman to referee a premiership game. Sara Cox became the world’s first professional female rugby union referee in 2016 and this weekend she took charge at her first premiership game.
Sara Cox began her career and quickly escalated in her serving as an assistant referee at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Two years later she became the first female referee to be contracted by the Rugby Football Union (RFU)- the sports governing body. She then worked as a referee in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to take charge in the Olympic rugby sevens. Recently, in summer, she refereed again in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games where she officiated the incredible gold medal match between New Zealand and France.
Ahead of the game on Saturday, before officiating her first premiership game, she told journalists from the BBC that “I’ve always wanted to cover a Premiership match with some of the best players in the world on the pitch. Now it’s happening and I couldn’t be more grateful for all the opportunities the game of rugby has given me.” She was excited but mentioned "I will love this opportunity as a first but what I would really love is for women referees to become the norm. With the number now involved, it can only inspire others. I want to grow interest, motivate others, while doing my job, which is to be out there in the middle of a rugby pitch."
After the match had finished, she stated, "Every single player and the coaching staff from both sides congratulated me afterwards. That was amazing that we had that respect."
So why aren’t more women becoming rugby referees and how come it has taken so long for a woman to referee in a premiership rugby union game?
One of the main reasons is due to prejudice. Of the few female rugby referees many have stated that have experienced sexism. Sara Cox said she experienced players calling her sir, and some female referees even experience sexual abuse on the side-lines from players and spectators, which is the main cause of the few existing female referees to quit their job.
Another reason for the long wait to see the first female referee for a premiership rugby game may be due to the lack of opportunities. The truth is very simple that girls aren’t being given the encouragement they often need to pursue a career in coaching or refereeing. And when girls do show an interest, they are not taken seriously enough.
We need to change this narrative and allow more girls to continue their passion as referring and take female officials more seriously in male dominated sports and thank them for the amazing job they do.
I really believe that women can offer expertise and judgement in the same manner as men and with less men coming into the field of officiating, I believe in a cynical way there may be more opportunities for women. I do also hope that both women and men will move seamlessly between their female and male codes of their sports so that officiating will not be a discussion about gender but more about accuracy and fairness.